Since 2009, Jessica Levy ’01 has been serving the community as a licensed clinical social worker. She began in child and adolescent therapy, working with children from ages 5 through 18, before working with adults. Currently, she is the director of outpatient services at Penn Medicine Princeton House Behavioral Health and site director of the Eatontown office. Her days are intense, as outpatient therapy is designed for patients with acute risk. “They’re coming out of an in-patient setting but still need a high level of care,” she explains. “The patients are suffering from substance abuse, severe depression, suicidality. They’re perceived as high risk and challenging, and we work with them to stabilize their behaviors and symptoms.” Patients spend five hours a day, five days a week at Princeton House undergoing group and individual therapy, as well as yoga and music/art therapy.
Of course, this was all before Covid hit the United States. “These are services that our patients really need and they had the rug pulled out from under them,” says Mrs. Levy. Similar to many other fields, she and her team turned to technology to solve the problem. “In a matter of three weeks, I was part of a team within Princeton House that developed our telehealth program. We now offer our intensive outpatient group therapy via telehealth and everything we did in brick and mortar, is now available in this setting.”
While the feedback has been positive and patients and staff navigate the new system, Mrs. Levy is more concerned about what lies ahead. Between Covid and the social unrest, “everybody’s mental health is being compromised.”
Covid has had an undeniable impact on our collective mental health. “This is something we have little experience with. We have been hearing of an increase in doctors, nurses, and first-responders committing suicide. They were otherwise healthy individuals who were not able to deal with the overwhelming impact. It takes a toll.”
While they have seen an uptick in mental health concerns, Mrs. Levy and other mental health professionals are especially concerned about the ongoing stigma of seeking health. “People don’t give enough attention to mental health and we want to bring light to that. We should all be doing better by not judging people. Mental health is not ‘crazy’ and it’s not something that makes somebody bad. In fact, it’s often biological.”
She also encourages others to become more educated about mental health. “I hear this often from my patients that friends and family tell them to just get over it or just stop doing this. If they could just do that, they would have already.”
Her advice? “If a friend or family member opens up to you, the receiving end can be scary. You may not know how to respond or are afraid you’ll say something wrong. It may be uncomfortable and many people are quick to shut the door, but all you have to do is listen. It’s ok to say you’re not sure how to support that person, but tell them you want to, ask them if they know where they can seek services. Don’t shut someone down because you’re uncomfortable. Just listen. That’s the best support you can offer.”
Mrs. Levy also points out that mental health is something we all need to consider. “I’m a full-time working mother of two young kids, and having to homeschool and manage that while I’m doing video therapy, I’ve lost myself a few times.” She stresses the importance of self-care. “Self-care is something to value and cherish, and make a priority. You don’t have to have a diagnosis to want to take care of yourself.”
Self-care extends to the office setting, too. While she and her colleagues are trained to handle stress as mental health caregivers, the current situation has gone beyond the norm. Open conversation has been helpful. “We need to allow for a space to have open conversation, and to be sad, and even angry, together.” It’s helped them navigate these difficult times, both professional and personally.
For Mrs. Levy, the uphill fight for mental health awareness is always top of mind. “When you say you work at Princeton Hospital as an oncologist, people know exactly what you do. I’d like to get to a place where I can say that I work at Princeton House and people know what that means.”
For now, she focuses on changing lives for the better, even with small acts of kindness. “I’ve had so many patients tell me that they were going to use or they were feeling low and then a stranger smiled at them or said hello and it changed everything. People just want to be seen, to know that they matter. You don’t know what that person you pass on the street may be managing, but that small gesture can make a difference.”